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calls his 'first contact with history' happened when he was a boy of

calls his 'first contact with history' happened when he was a boy of six. He was impressed by a pageant representing the entry of Count Edzard into Groningen in
1506, a procession that lingered in his mind as the most beautiful thing he had ever
seen up to that time, (I, 11) with the Count in shining armour and the fiags waving
in the wind. It was history in a pageant and as a pageant, and it was also a game of
makebelief. Indeed we hear that when it was over, the small boys also wanted to
dress up and march through the streets, but here for the first time little Johan encountered the figure who was to turn up again in Homo ludens - the spoilsport.
The Mayor of Groningen apparently considered it a breach of decorum for little
folk to parade through the town in fancy dress and so their show had to be held
indoors in the local theatre. Who knows whether this rebuff may not also have led
him to reflect on that clash between the world of hard reality and the attractions of
a world of fancy? Huizinga himself has characterized the spell that history continued to exert on him less as an intellectual interest than 'a kind of hantise, an obsession,
a dream as it had been since the days of my boyhood'. (I, 29)
He also tells us that he succumbed to the romantic attraction of heraldry and genealogy and confesses that it made him a little susceptible to the glamour of noble
birth. (I, 13) How easily these leanings might have turned him into a typical romantic, writing nostalgic history or even novels and plays full of pageantry and
dreams. Only, if that had been the whole of Huizinga's mental make-up we would
scarcely have come from all parts of the world to pay tribute to his memory. What
made him great was an element of conflict, an awareness of values that transcend
romanticism. Truth must not be tampered with, and the greater the nostalgia, the
more is the scholar in honour bound to remain critical, to probe, to find out, to
consult the sources and to respect the evidence. (VII, 26) Far from succumbing to
romanticism he turned his own leanings into a problem with which he wrestled.
Maybe it was this distrust of his own inclinations that made him first seek the sterner discipline of comparative philology. We learn from his autobiographical sketch
that his philological interests led him to a psychological problem he proposed to
tackle, it was the problem of synaesthesia, the tendency of all languages to mix up
the sense modalities so that sounds can be described as bright or light as soft.
(I, 27) He himself was no doubt a very strong visualizer and the connection of this
topic with the main preoccupation of his life is easy to understand. The way the
word is wedded to the image (verbeelding) intrigued him all the more as he valued
the capacity of the historian to see the past with the eyes of his mind.5 But as we
know, he also realized the dangers of such automatic associations. How seriously
should we take them? If there is one aspect of linguistic study which raises this
question of playfulness - as Huizinga was to acknowledge in Homo ludens (V, 166)
5. Kart J. Weintraub, Visions of Culture (Chicago, 1966) 228-9.
- it is surely the problem of metaphor. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the young student was disappointed in the guidance he had expected from psychologists and
linguists and so he abandoned the topic.
It was in the lecture of 1903 on Buddhism (I, 148-172), which I have mentioned
before, that he turned to the problematical nature of visualizing in the context of
cultural history. He suspected that the appeal which Buddhism exercised on the
West around the turn of the century was aesthetic rather than intellectual. The visual image of the mysterious East had more to do with its hold on the fashionable
world than the mixture of asceticism and magic he had found in the authentic
texts. (I, 157) And so the stern scholar reveals himself for the first time also as
the anti-romantic critic of his age.
There is another ingredient here in Huizinga's intellectuel formation to which he
has also drawn our attention. He was captivated by E. B. Tylor's Primitive Culture
(1871), the first book, I believe, which formulates the demand for a science of culture. (I, 17)6 The vistas which this book opened to him, we read, remained for
ever the germs of his scientific ideas. Now what Tylor had in common with other
early students of the subject is a tendency to speak of 'primitive culture' or of the
'primitive mind' as a definite well-defined entity. For Huizinga the interest of
Buddhism lay partly in the fact that it was much closer to the primitive mind than
its modern admirers realized. (I, 169) Even its images of bliss with their emphasis
on sensuous pleasure belied the ascetic impulse and revealed that same primitive
mentality (I, 171) that expressed itself in the enjoyment of riddles.
But though he was attracted by the vivid picture Tylor had drawn of primitive
mentality he was unwilling to accept the more ambitious claims of the rising discipline of social psychology. He must have frequently heard these claims debated
in Leipzig where he studied in 1895 and where he consulted Wilhelm Wundt, then
at work on his Völkerpsychologie; for there the most combative champion of this
movement Karl Lamprecht also held a chair since 1891.7 When accident and
inclination had finally turned him into a historian Huizinga decided to respond to
this challenge in his Inaugural Lecture on 'The Aesthetic Components of our
Historical Ideas', (VII, 3-28) which is the subject of Professor Oestreich's searching
contribution to this volume. What had repelled Huizinga was the arrogance with
which Karl Lamprecht claimed to make history 'scientific' by operating with
psychological laws of evolution. Granted that some of Lamprecht's observations
about the mentality of the German Middle Ages, his concepts of 'Typismus' and
'Konventionalismus' were not uninstructive, how scientific were they really? He
did not object to their having been established a priori. 'Which categories of this
6. E. H. Gombrich, In Search of Cultural History (Oxford, 1969).
7. E. Rosenbaum, 'Johan Huizinga', Die Zeitung (London, llth May, 1945).
kind had ever been found by induction?' The danger lay in the fact that such auxiliary constructs which the historian should be able to use and to discard at will were
presented as ultimate realities. (VII, 8) I believe that Huizinga's intervention in this
famous debate is memorable less for the use he made of the methodological theories of Windelband, Rickert, Spranger and Simmel than for the way he attempted
once more to formulate his personal problem as one of historical method - the
need to see the past in terms of vivid images, and the duty to search for the truth,
even if this means correcting or discarding the original vision.
I do not think it is claiming too much to suggest that Huizinga's masterpiece is
constructed around the tensions created by these opposing tendencies. What could
be more characteristic here than the passage in the opening paragraph of the third
chapter of the Waning of the Middle Ages, the chapter that deals with the hierarchical conception of society. 'Romanticism', he says, 'was inclined to identify the
Middle Ages with the age of chivalry. It saw there mostly helmets with nodding
plumes ('wuivende vederbossen'). And however paradoxical this may sound today, to a certain extent it was right in doing so'. (III, 66)8
It was right, we may continue, not because all was chivalry in the Middle Ages,
but because chivalry was an expression of the aspirations of the age. However
much we may know of the realities of the period, its greed, its squalor, its cruelty
and its coarseness, the historian of culture is not only concerned with these realities, he is concerned with collective dreams, with the fiction that is inseparable from
civilization, in other words with chivalry not as an institution but as a game which
nobility played and the others watched. There are many passages in which Huizinga
recurs to this image of a game that was played in war, in diplomacy, in courtly love
and in the whole fabric of life. But at that time he had not yet rejected psychology
as an aid to the understanding of this phenomenon. I am referring to the second
chapter of the book which follows his famous dramatic picture of the harsh realities of life in the period. These realities aroused a longing for a more beautiful life
and such longing, we read, will at all times find three possible paths towards fulfilment. (III, 40)
The first leads out of the world through a denial of all earthly pleasures for the sake
of heaven, the way of asceticism, Buddhist or Christian; the second leads to an improvement of this world, it is the way of reform and progress that was chosen by
the modern age. Maybe it was precisely because this way was unknown to the
Middle Ages that the third was of such importance, the way, in Huizinga's words,
into a dreamland, the way of illusion. Granted that this way was fundamentally
un-Christian, it was the way chosen by the majority of the elite.
8. The passage is omitted from the English translation, on which see Weintraub, Visions, 212.
The whole aristocratic life of the late Middle Ages . . . is an attempt to play a dream,
always the same dream of ancient heroes and sages, of the knight and the maiden, of
simple and contented shepherds.
True, Huizinga concedes in a significant aside,
I know that all this is not specifically mediaeval, the seeds are found in primitive
phases of culture, we may also call it Chinoiserie or Byzantinism, and it does not die
out with the Middle Ages as the roi soleil testifies. (III, 46)
There is little in the book itself that explains how Huizinga sees the distinction between the game played in the late Middle Ages and that of other civilizations, but
I think what struck him was the accentuation of the game, its exaggerations which
so blatantly contrasted with the unseemly realities of life. 'Everywhere', he writes
in a pregnant phrase, 'did the lie peep out of the holes of the ceremonial garb of
chivalry'. (III, 123)
There is more than one hint here that the dream is always more conservative than
reality. What may have begun as a serious institution became a pretence, a mere
game. Now E. B. Tylor had included in his book on Primitive Culture a most interesting discussion of games, games of grown-ups and nursery rhymes, pages
which one might not have expected to find in a Victorian classic. Tylor looks at the
game in the context of his theory of survival. There is an inertia in human
civilization that secures the survival of beliefs and rituals into periods in which
their meaning is long forgotten. Superstitions have always been recognized as
such survivals, as their name indicates. Many games are of a similar character.
They reflect old rituals and beliefs which have vanished from serious life and only
live on as pastimes. If I am right that this interpretation of games influenced Huizinga this would help to explain his whole reading of the period. This reading, as
we know from the title of the book, postulates that the period can only be understood as an end, an autumn, not as the birth of something new. Elsewhere9 I have
criticized this emphasis on the autumnal character of the period, and I now know
that Huizinga himself came to regret the title he had chosen as too metaphorical.
(IV, 450) In his last book, Geschonden Wereld, he even explicitly rejected the metaphor of rising and declining civilizations. (VII, 511) But if at the time when he
worked on his masterpiece he saw games largely as survivals, he was bound to
emphasize the lateness of a period in which people appeared so eager to play roles
or to play at roles which no longer had a serious function in a changed reality.
This interpretation of certain playful forms of life as survivals of earlier phases
which is so characteristic of Tylor's approach comes to the fore, for instance, in
Huizinga's reflections on what he calls the epithalamian style, the bawdiness and
coarseness in erotic matters that he observed in mediaeval marriage customs.
9. Gombrich, Cultural History, 29.
These matters become intelligible if they are seen against their ethnological background, as . . . weakened survivals of the phallic symbolism of primitive culture. Here
the dividing line between play and earnestness had not yet been drawn across culture
and the holiness of ritual was linked with the unbridled enjoyment of life . . . (III, 132)
But Huizinga would not have been the deeply conscientious scholar he was if he
had been satisfied with pat solutions. Once in a while the assured narrator gives
way to the baffled historian. Discussing the Mirror of Marriage by Descamps the
author interrupts himself to ask:
Did the poet mean all this seriously? One might also ask whether Jean Petit and his
Burgundian protectors really believed in all the atrocities with which they defiled the
memory of Orleans or whether the princes and nobles really took seriously all the
bizarre fantasies and the play-acting with which they embroidered their plans of
campaign and their vows. It is extremely difficult within the realm of mediaeval
thought to arrive at a neat distinction between what is play and what is earnest,
between honest conviction and that attitude of mind which the English call pretending,
the attitude of a playing child which also occupies an important place in primitive
culture. (III, 296-7)
Here, of course, is one of the roots of Homo ludens. But only one, I believe. We
know that for Huizinga the problem became urgent only when it became a moral
I should like here to offer a very tentative hypothesis about the way this moral
question increasingly obtruded itself, tentative all the more as Huizinga's autobiographical essay offers no hint in this respect. I refer to Huizinga's unexpected interest in American civilization. He must have worked concurrently on the completion of the Waning of the Middle Ages and on his four essays on Man and Mass
in the United States (V, 247-417) which were published before the other book saw
the light in 1919. At that time Huizinga had never yet been to the States, but he
was rightly convinced that Europeans knew far too little about that new civilization across the Atlantic. He was attracted by the challenge of describing a culture
which, as he said, could not be encompassed in one of the few traditional forms
that offered themselves to the historian as a framework of description. (V,251ff)
Even that convenient formula of a conflict between the old and the new nearly
broke down there, because in America the old lacked the strength it always had in
our history. The real conflict in America was between man and nature; in other
words here was the model of a civilization that exemplified man's desire to improve
this world rather than concern himself with hopes of the beyond or with the reenactment of past glories.
If I am right in my surmise that Huizinga planned at the time to exemplify his
conception of the three possibilities open to man in his reaction to the sufferings
of life we might expect him also to have planned a study of a strictly religious ci283
vilization. Buddhism had failed to hold him and he seems to have settled on a study
of what he calls the pre-Gothic twelfth century. According to P. Geyl it was to be
called 'The Spring of the Middle Ages' and to form a counterpart to Herfsttij.10
The project was only partly realized in the form of essays and lectures on Alanus
de Insulis, John of Salisbury and Abelard (IV, 1-122) which clearly show how much
Huizinga was attracted by the age. It fits my interpretation of this abortive project that Huizinga treated John of Salisbury's book De Nugis Curialium as an early
attack on that courtly culture that flourished so exuberantly in the late Middle Ages.
(IV,102ff.) The trifles of the courtiers, the nugae curialium, are precisely the games
courtiers play instead of concerning themselves with their salvation.
Not that these three figures represent the extreme of Christian asceticism. In the
concluding words of the last of these lectures, Huizinga points to the hatred Abelard aroused in men such as Bernard of Clairvaux. He speaks of the contrast that
pervades the history of Christian thought, between those who, like Abelard, appealed to the cultural ideal of St. Jerome who, for all his asceticism, was open to cultural values, and those who foliowed St. Augustine, 'the man with the flaming heart'.
'Whenever a great crisis of faith occurred', he writes, 'the words of St. Augustine
weighed more heavily in the scales of the ages than those of St. Jerome'. (IV, 122)
Is it not likely that Huizinga had once planned also to portray for us this great
current of culture? However much he owed to the tradition of St. Jerome, he clearly felt the attraction of the opposite camp.
Nothing would be more misleading than to represent Huizinga's rich and varied
life-work as the arid illustration of one particular thesis, but nobody who submits
to the spell of this great man can miss the note of personal concern in nearly everything he wrote. The concern became more urgent when he had actually visited America in 1926 and had found it impossible to reconcile himself to what he had found
there. In the 'Unsystematic Jottings', Losse Opmerkingen, (V 418-89) he published
in the subsequent year his personal reaction breaks through the detachment of the
observer and tells us of his growing estrangement from the course of Western
What appears to have hurt him quite particularly was the way in which the various dominant schools of American psychology and sociology interpreted all art
and all religion as forms of escapism, 'evasive satisfactions, compensatory fabrications'. (V, 481) Maybe this attitude disturbed him all the more profoundly as it
bore more than a superficial resemblance to his own metaphor of the three paths
out of the misery of this world. Not that Huizinga was inconsistent in his rejection
of what we now call reductionism. For him man's urge to transcend reality was
always creative. Far from being a sign of weakness it was a sign of strength. He
10. P. Geyl, 'Huizinga as an Accuser of his Age', History and Theory, II (1963) iii, 231-262, 255.
(No source is given).
tells of a conversation he had with a young sociologist who was ready to admit that
our present civilization was no longer capable of creating great art. Great art after
all arose precisely as an escape from this world, it was no more than a morbid
symptom. Huizinga countered by telling the story of the Friesian King Radbod who
was about to be baptized and asked the Bishop where his ancestors were. When he
was told that they were in hell he got out of the font and declared that he preferred
the abode of his ancestors to the new paradise. (V, 482) He, Huizinga, preferred to
dwell among the terrors and delusions of an ancient civilization rather than in the
promised land of social perfection. He knew it was an inadequate answer. He knew
that the sociologist could have replied: 'Take care what you say, you cannot eat
your pie and have it'. But he confesses that he was confused and depressed by these
encounters. He tells us of a visit to Cologne when he felt annoyed by the way the
city had been spoilt and trivialized. By accident almost he had found his way into
the ancient church of St. Maria im Kapitol where offices were being read. Suddenly
he seemed to grasp the meaning which a true ritual had for a community quite
apart from its religious significance. I sensed 'the tremendous seriousness of an
age in which these things were what mattered to everyone. I had the feeling as if
nine tenths of our present culture were strictly irrelevant'. (V, 480)
Here, I believe, is the new element, the experience that turned Huizinga from a
calm historian of culture into a passionate critic of his own times and, if the truth
must be said, into a laudator temporis acti. That romantic aestheticism he had always tried to keep under strict control offered itself as the only refuge from the
modern world from which he feit increasingly alienated. Harsh words have been
said about Huizinga by such penetrating critics as Pieter Geyl11 and Rosalie Colie12
because of his refusal to come to terms with the realities of his time. I feel it would
almost be an impertinence even to try to defend him, because if he had been more
realistic he would also have been less interesting. I have found13 that it is from those
who react to the problems of their time in an intensely personal way that we can
generally learn much more than we do from the well adjusted. I venture to think
that none of Huizinga's critics I have read have quite confronted the agony of his
position. What had sustained him throughout his life, indeed what had prompted
him to reject romantic aestheticism in favour of an uncompromising search for
truth, was a faith in absolute values, the values of Christianity and the values of
rationality. What so deeply upset him was the spectacle of reason undermining rationality. His stand was to be against relativism in all forms. Whatever we think
about individual arguments he employed, it was a noble stand in a important cause.
11. Ibidem.
12. 'Johan Huizinga and the Task of Cultural History', American Historical Review, LXIX (1964)
iii, 607-630.
13. See my Aby Warburg. An Intellectual Biography (London, 1971) 9.
The two books which were the most immediate expression of his position are
In the Shadow of Tomorrow14 and Homo ludens. It has rightly been said by Gustaaf
Renier 15 that they belong together, indeed neither can quite be understood in
isolation. The more topical book explains the author's deep anxieties about the
future of Western Culture, the other tries to reinforce the argument by explaining
what we have lost since the eighteenth century.
The central tenet that holds the wings of the diptych together is Huizinga's conviction that 'Culture must have its ultimate aim in the metaphysical, or it will cease
to be culture'. (VII, 333)
By opposing metaphysics the modern spirit has abolished culture. It has done so
precisely because it tries to explain away such essentials of culture as morality, law or
piety as just so many taboos. (VII, 331)
Several of Huizinga's critics have expressed surprise that his book on play does
not even so much as refer to Freud; the question misses the point that Freud's
attitude - or what Huizinga took it to be - was precisely one of the main targets of
the twin books. Freudianism, as he calls is, had familiarized whole generations
with the notion of sublimation, an attempt, in other words, to explain the origins of
culture and of art through the transformation of'infantile appetites'. Huizinga calls
it 'essentially even more anti-Christian in its implications than the ethical theory of
Marxism'. (VII, 374) For his most vehement pronouncement on the latter we must
turn to a passage in Homo Ludens which sums up the other book in a few hardhitting lines against the nineteenth-century belief in technical progress.
As a result of this luxation of our intellects the shameful misconception of Marxism
could be put about and even believed, that economic forces and material interests
determine the course of the world. This grotesque over-estimation of the economic
factor was conditioned by our worship of technological progress, which was itself the
fruit of rationalism and utilitarianism after they had killed the mysteries and acquitted
man of guilt and sin. But they had forgotten to free him of folly and myopia, and he
seemed only fit to mould the world after the pattern of his own banality. (V, 223.
The word 'Marxism' is added in the English edition, 192).
This tone of contempt for the present age owed something to the book by Ortega
y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses, in which a warning is sounded against the
'primitives' within the gates of Western Civilization.16 Huizinga alludes to this
book in his open letter to Julien Benda of December 1933 in which he diagnoses
three failings of our time: puerility, superstition and insincerity. (VII, 271) Among
14. My quotations are generally from the English translation by J. H. Huizinga, London, 1936
but references here as always are to the Collected Works.
15. Quoted by Geyl, 'Huizinga', 239.
16. English translation, London, 1932, after the Spanish original of 1930, Chapters ix and x.
the symptoms of the first he cites the antics of mass movements with their uniforms,
their marches and their chantings. In his original Leiden lecture on play in February 1933 he still thought that playfulness might be cited here as an extenuating circumstance, (V, 24) but in the course of that fateful year he changed his mind. This
was not real play. It was what he called puerilism. Did he perhaps remember his
own boyish desire to march through the streets of Groningen in fancy dress and had
he come to side with authority, as we so often do when we grow older? Be that as
it may, he minced no words about onlookers who are impressed by such spectacles
'This seems greatness, power. It is childishness . . . those who can still think know
that all this has no value whatever'. (VII, 394)
Those who can still think. For what disturbed Huizinga at least as much as the
efforts to explain too much was the trend of irrationalism, the worship of life and of
thinking with the blood that was the other side of the medal. Once more Huizinga
has been criticized for not attacking National Socialist and Fascist ideologies for
what they were, political movements, and rather treating them as symptoms of
the sickness of our culture. But this is how they appeared to him, he was less interested in the causes of these movements than in the response they had met with,
and his strictures were all the more effective at the time because they were not uttered in a political context. Those of us who still remember the nightmare of those
years will also recall how grateful one was for this stern voice of reason. For Huizinga felt committed to reason, but it had become a difficult commitment.
These are strange times. Reason, which once combated faith and seemed to have
conquered it, now has to look to faith to save it from dissolution. For it is only on the
unshaken and unyielding foundation of a living metaphysical belief that the concept
of absolute truth with its consequence of absolute validity of ethical norms can withstand the growing pressure of the instinctive will to live. (p. 92). (VII, 364)
But why and how, we may ask, did this insistence on faith lead Huizinga back to
his life-long interest in what he called the play-element of culture? I hope my answer will not be found shocking, it is not intended to be. Playing a game implies unquestioning acceptance of rules. If you do not, you are the spoilsport, that figure
of whom Huizinga has so perceptively harsh things to say. The spoilsport, we remember, 'shatters the play-world itself. By withdrawing from the game he reveals
the relativity and fragility of the play-world in which he had temporarily shut himself with others. He robs the play of its illusion' and must be cast out as a threat to
the play community. (V, 39) The more one reads Huizinga the more one comes to
see that it was this character of common consent, the agreement to refrain from
certain questions, that constituted for him an important condition of civilization.
'Civilization', he says towards the end of his book, 'will in a sense always be
played according to certain rules, and true civilization will always demand fair
play. Fair play is nothing less than good faith expressed in play terms'. (V, 244)
The context in which these words stand leave no doubt about their significance.
Huizinga was appalled by the book of a National Socialist, Carl Schmitt, Der
Begriff des Politischen, which he summed up in the formula that pacta non sunt
servanda. (V, 243) He fastened on the German euphemism for war, 'Eintreten des
Ernstfalls' (the advent of a serious contingency), to remind his readers that the
serious business of mankind is peace. Such peace demands the recognition of rules,
of common ground. It almost looks like an oversight that he omits to mention the
most palpable link between games and peace recorded in history, the traditional
truce between the warring Greek states at the time of the Olympic games.
In a sense Schmitt's cynical reasoning appeared to Huizinga merely as an extreme
example of the dangers inherent in any type of argumentation that ignores the existence of values embodied in rules. His reading of the crisis of our time suggested
to him that an unquestioning acceptance of such rules is of the essence of the game
we call civilization. No wonder he looked with a certain nostalgia back to a time
where such questionings lay outside the range of possibilities, simply because the
distinction between playfulness and seriousness had not obtruded itself on the language and the mental horizon of the civilizations concerned.
Within the continuity of Huizinga's interest in the subject there is thus a distinct
shift of emphasis between The Waning of the Middle Ages and Homo ludens. What
had intrigued him in his earlier work was the phenomenon of 'pretending', the
flight into a world of fantasy that had much in common with the attitudes of a child
at play. There is little of this element in the initial definition of the phenomenon
which he proposes in Homo ludens.
Play is a voluntary activity or occupation executed within certain fixed limits of time
and place, according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding
(V, 56)
It is (in English terms) a shift from 'play' to 'games'. This change of accent which
accorded so well with Huizinga's moral preoccupation was certainly also facilitated
by the conception of culture Huizinga found in the posthumous work of his great
predecessor Jakob Burckhardt, Griechische Kulturgeschichte.17 In his famous
characterization of the flowering of Greek culture of the fifth century Burckhardt
had coined the word agonal, agonistic, and had shown how this ideal had penetrated the whole of life. Not only athletes and the arts were conceived as contests,
even lawsuits and philosophical dialogues partook of the character and concept of
the agon. Burckhardt contrasts this striving for fame with our modern striving for
gain, but here as always he retains his critical detachment. The cult of the agon was
to him something peculiarly Greek, based as it was on the importance the Greeks
17. I am indebted to Prof. A. Momigliano who made me see the importance of this shift.
attached to the opinion of others. This trait was clearly rooted in the social situation of the polis. In the East the institution of castes and the weight of despotism
would have stifled such a love of free contests between equals.
It is natural that Huizinga could not accept this interpretation. Burckhardt, he
reminds us, had composed his work in the eighties 'before any general sociology
existed to digest all the ethnological and anthropological data, most of which...
were only coming to light then'. (V, 100) It was this limitation that accounts for
Burckhardt's picture of Greek culture developing in comparative isolation from
the phase he called 'heroic' to that he called 'agonistic'. But there was no such excuse, in Huizinga's view, for a classical scholar to repeat this theory in 1935 and
to present the transition from the heroic to the agonistic, from battle to play as a
form of decadence. (V, 103) For in this respect, too, Huizinga's standpoint had
somewhat shifted. He no longer appears to have endorsed Tylor's conviction that
certain forms of play had evolved from activities once meant in earnest. Neither
in Greece nor anywhere else, Huizinga stresses, was there such a transition from
battle to play or from play to battle. 'The play element' was present from the
Our point of departure must be the conception of an almost childlike play-sense,
expressing itself in various play-forms, some serious, some playful, but all rooted in
ritual and productive culture by allowing the innate human need of rhythm, harmony,
change, alternation, contrast, and climax, etc. to unfold in full richness. Coupled with
this play-sense is a spirit that strives for honour, dignity, superiority and beauty.
Magic and mystery, heroic longings, the foreshadowings of music, sculpture and logic
all seek form and expression in noble play. A later generation will call the age that
knew such aspirations heroic. (V, 103) (The last sentence only in the English edition).
It is a beautiful passage and a beautiful vision, but one that does not disguise its
romantic origin. Was there ever such a Golden Age? For once in this book Huizinga
ignores the insistent question after the relation between dream and reality. The
horrors, brutalities and insanities of past cultures are hidden in the golden mist of
that idyllic dream which Huizinga himself had once analysed as a projection of
Remember Huizinga's story of the Friesian King Radbod who chose hell rather
than paradise out of loyalty to his ancestors. What is troubling in Huizinga's
later books is his refusal to acknowledge the reality of that hell. True, he might
have countered this criticism by the reminder that he was speaking of aspirations
rather than of realities. What he emphasized in both books was what he called 'a
harmonious balance of material and spiritual values and a more or less homogeneous ideal in whose pursuit the community's various activities converge'. (VII,
332) But it is far from easy to make this idea of balance that had already occurred
in 1897 fully intelligible in concrete terms. It is clear from Homo ludens that, hu289
manist as he was, Huizinga primarily thought of classical Greece and perhaps
twelfth-century France. In ancient Rome that balance was already gravely upset.
He finds suspicious emphasis in the grandeur of Roman art and the meretricious
glitter of Roman decoration.
The whole betrays the would-be playfulness of an unquiet mind troubled by the
dangers of a menacing reality but seeking refuge in the idyllic. The play element is
very prominent here, but it has no organic connection with the structure of society
and is no longer fecund of true culture. (V, 208)
It is a charge which is often levelled at the culture and art of the rococo, but
Huizinga loved the eighteenth century and commended it precisely for its playfulness. It is hard to deny the element of an almost defiant subjectivity in Huizinga's
evaluations of cultural elements past and present. Sometimes, indeed, he comes
close to the stereotype of the old man out of tune with youth. Having rightly exalted the dance as an expression of culture he hurries to say that not every form of
dancing shows this play quality to the full. 'This supercession of the round dance,
choral, and figure dances by dancing a deux . . . or the slitherings or slidings . . . of
contemporary dancing is probably to be regarded as a symptom of declining culture'. (V, 196. The Dutch is less emphatic than the English version) More surprising
still, we read that 'realism, naturalism, impressionism and the rest of that dull catalogue of literary and pictorial coteries were all emptier of the play spirit than any
of the earlier styles had ever been'. (V, 224, as above) Is Renoir really less playful
than Pontormo?
What is surprising here is not that Huizinga, like all of us, had his prejudices and
pet aversions. What calls for comment is rather a shift in his philosophical attitude
towards the use of concepts. Huizinga repeatedly denied that he had philosophical
gifts or interests and here, as always, we must believe him; but this did not prevent
him in his earlier years from taking a determined stand against the attitude of mind
that we now call 'essentialism'.18 It may be remembered that he had criticized
Lamprecht for believing in the reality of his concepts rather than regarding them as
auxiliary constructs. Later, in his beautiful essay on the Task of Cultural History
he had devoted a whole section to this issue when he came to discuss the vexed problem of periodization.
The only deliverance from the dilemma of an exact division by periods lies in the
considered abandonment of every requirement of exactitude. The terms should be
used, in moderation and modesty, as historical custom provides them. One should use
them lightly, and not build structures on them that they cannot support. Care should
be taken not to squeeze them dry . . . One should always be aware that every term
18. K. R. Popper, The Poverty of Historicism (London, 1957) 27 ff, and The Open Society and its
Enemies (London, 1945) ch. xi-2.
pretending to express the essence or the nature of a period is prejudicial by that very
fact . . . One should constantly be prepared to abandon a term . . . (VII, 92-3)19
To those of us who share this anti-essentialist approach, which is certainly also the
approach of the natural sciences, it comes as a surprise to find the Huizinga of
Homo ludens fïrmly entrenched in the essentialist camp. It is obvious that he knew
what he was doing.
From a nominalist point of view we might deny the validity of a general concept of
play and say that for every human group the concept 'play' contains what is expressed in the word - or rather words. (V, 56)
But now the whole structure of the book is designed to exclude this argument. Like
a Scholastic 'realist' or any Aristotelian, Huizinga starts with a definition designed
to capture the 'essence' of the play concept and only then scrutinizes the words used
in various languages to express this essence. The burden of his second chapter is
that some languages 'have succeeded better than others in getting the various
aspects of play into one word'. (V, 56-7) It is obvious that the failure of Greek to do
precisely this in using different terms for contests and for childish play (V, 57-58)
disturbed him no less than the tendency of so many languages to speak of loveplay
in erotic contexts. (V, 71-2) This, he felt, must be a mere metaphor for it fell outside his definition. What he was concerned with was 'play as a primary datum of
experience' (V, 234) and it is also clear why he took this line. He had found in this
somewhat authoritarian approach a defence against those dangers of 'reductionism' which had come to preoccupy him. Play could not be explained. He speaks
of 'that irreducible quality of pure playfulness which is not . . . amenable to further
analysis', (V, 34) of the 'absolute independence of the play concept'. (V, 34;
English edition p. 6) In other words, play has become for him what Goethe would
have called an Urphänomen. Goethe had used this strategy to preserve his notion
of colour from the analysis of Newtonian opties. Huizinga withdrew into a similar
fortress to ward off the onslaught of psychology and the study of animal behaviour.
It is for this reason, I believe, that Homo ludens raises so many questions and offers
so few answers. The notion of play as an irreducible fact could not but rule out
any attempts at explanation. I hope to have shown that Huizinga was consistent in
adopting this attitude, and it can certainly not be the purpose of this paper to enter
into the vast range of problems he so deliberately excluded. But enough must be
said to indicate why I do not believe that his strategy was either successful or necessary. As far as the concept of play is concerned the anti-essentialist case has
meanwhile been put in a famous section of Wittgenstein's Philosophische Unter19. I quote from the English translation by J. S. Holmes and H. v. Marle in Men and Ideas
(Meridian Books, 1959) 74.
suchungen,20 in which it is argued that the various meanings of a term need not all
have something in common; sometimes their likeness, like family likeness, may
only link neighbouring applications without extending over the whole of the field.
I am not sure that Wittgenstein's example was happily chosen, precisely because
'Spiel' (he was writing in German) can always be opposed to 'Ernst' like 'disease'
to 'health'. What has to be demonstrated (and curiously enough has been demonstrated by none other than Huizinga) is that the distinction itself is fluid and, up to
a point, a matter of convention. Naturally this does not mean that we are debarred
from adopting such a convention when discussing behaviour, we only must not
attach more weight to the words we use here than in the case of historical periods.
Least of all must we allow an a priori definition to block any further analysis. Some
of the problems that interested Huizinga have indeed acquired a different look since
1938 when Homo ludens was published. One such example must here suffice. In the
first paragraph of the book he invites us to watch young dogs
to see that all the essentials of human play are present in their merry gambols. They
invite one another to play by a certain ceremoniousness in attitude and gesture. They
keep to the rule that you shall not bite, or not bite hard, your brother's ear. (V, 28)
The observation is correct but nobody who has read the writings of Konrad Lorenz 21 or of Huizinga's compatriot Niko Tinbergen 22 will be content any longer
with describing such behaviour as an Urphänomen. The science of ethology has
introduced us to the development of what is called ritualization 23 and to the importance of the achievement of dominance, of ranking, indeed since Huizinga the
term 'pecking order' has become part of common parlance. 24 We can guess at the
importance of these mechanisms in the animal world. After a brief trial of strength
every animal in the flock or the herd learns to know its place and does not expend
unnecessary energy in fighting a stronger member of its group. Only at certain moments of crisis as the strength of the dominant animal fails will there be contests
for a place at the top of the ladder and these contests will end as soon as victory is
20. L. Wittgenstein, Philosophische Untersuchungen (Oxford, 1953) 31 ff.
21. Konrad Lorenz, Das sogenannte Böse. Zur Naturgeschichte der Aggression (Vienna, 1963).
22. N. Tinbergen, 'On War and Peace in Animals and Man', Science, CLX (28th June, 1968)
23. W. H. Thorpe, 'Ritualization in ontogeny, I, Animal Play', in J. Huxley, ed., A Discussion on
Ritualization of Behaviour in Animals and Man. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of
London, Series B, No. 772, CCLI (1966).
24. Thanks to the kindness of the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary Supplement I have
been allowed to see their collection of references from which it appears that the German term
Hackliste was used by T. J. Schjelderup-Ebbe in Zeitschrift für Psychologie, LXXXVIII (1922)
227. The earliest non-scientific usage there recorded is in A. Huxley, Point Counter Point (1928) 48.
Could the novelist have taken it over from his brother, the biologist? W. C. Allee, Animal Aggregations (Chicago, 1931) and The Social Life of Animals (London-Toronto, 1938) appears to
have made the term more popular, though its real vogue dates from the post-war period.
conceded. Lorenz has shown that the same is true of the fights for territory
or for mates. As a rule animals of the same species do not kill each other. Once the
outcome is clear and dominance established the contest is over. The defeated submits and slinks away. Even in the animal world there is no absolute distinction between the sham fight and the real contest. Both are rule governed. Once we grant
that these restraints are of the utmost importance for the survival of the species we
are surely entitled to ask for the fate of these tendencies in human communities.
In one sense man is less lucky than animals. Endowed as he is with what we call
reason he has invented tools and weapons, ruses, stratagems and traps. A human
contest is no longer a simple trial of physical strength and the loser, instead of acknowledging defeat, may poison a well or dig a ditch to catch his stronger opponent unawares. There are two ways out of this new situation. Either the victor can
kill his adversary to remain in safe possession of his rank or territory, or the group
can impose explicit rules for the contest which disallow hitting below the belt, poisoning wells or digging ditches. We are on the way to the rules of contests that interested Huizinga. He knew, of course, that there was a link between the craving
for dominance and the role of contests.
The urge to be first has as many forms of expression as society offers opportunity to it.
The ways in which man competes for superiority are as various as the prizes at stake.
Decision may be left to chance, physical strength, dexterity, or bloody combats. Or
there may be competitions in courage or endurance, skilfulness, knowledge, boasting
and cunning. A trial of strength may be demanded, or a specimen of art; a sword has
to be forged or ingenious rhymes made. (V, 134)
What these and the countless other examples we find in Homo ludens suggest is
precisely that a competition or contest must be in something, in a definable achievement which allows of an unambiguous decision like climbing up a greasy pole or
putting a man on the moon. Granted that Huizinga is right and that even a learned symposium partakes of the character of play, it would become a game only if
we introduced some arbitrary criterion of what constitutes winning. A contest
might be arranged as to who can place most quotations from Huizinga's Collected
Works, a contest in which I would certainly lose. The point is always to define
precisely beforehand what it is that is to be tested. The need to do so is perfectly
rational if you are aiming at a ranking order. What is irrational is the implicit assumption that victory in one type of contest betokens superiority in other fields.
The fact that the boat of the Cambridge crew arrives at the winning post before that
of Oxford is taken to mean that Cambridge is the better University. I confess I
suffer from a rare disability in this respect. I find it hard to understand the feeling
that 'we have won' merely because someone has won. Huizinga would of course
have dismissed this vulgar reaction as part of the puerilism he did not want to be
confused with 'noble play'. It is certainly understandable that he tried to isolate his
ideal which he saw as a vital constituent of all culture, from anything he disliked,
but in a sense the creation of this negative category of puerilism only serves to
cut play loose from that anchorage in the emotional life he had once acknowledged
and described. 'Pretending' is surely deeply rooted in our need to find an outlet for
our emotions. To learn to play is to learn that such outlets can be constructed in
safety. 25I know of a little girl who plagued her mother every night with fearful
howls when she made any attempt to leave the room- But one night the little
horror commanded: 'Mummy, go away, I want to cry for mummy' - a textbook
example of the pleasures of domination in more than one sense of the term. Watch
any baby playing peep-a-boo. It will expect the grown-up to ask loudly 'Where is
baby? I can't find baby', and to burst into delighted cries when baby is 'found'.
Surely the moment comes very soon when the child knows very well that we are
pretending, but only a spoilsport would then say 'I have seen you all along'.
Huizinga had the right instinct in focussing attention on the spoilsport as a key
to our understanding of what play is about. But here as elsewhere his wish to isolate
play from the study of the human mind deprived him of some of the fruits of his
insight. Remember Albee's play 'Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf' where the husband takes his revenge by 'killing' the son who never was.
Is there really no transition from such abnormal states to some of the phenomena
of culture that interested Huizinga? Need we be afraid of investigating these pressures, for fear of debunking man's stature? Does the fact that cathedrals were built
to proclaim not only the glory of God but also the power of the Bishop make them
less beautiful? Are they not in any case astounding structures which we can admire
for their own sake? I believe with K. R. Popper that what is called 'reductionism'
need not make us retreat into a refusal to consider questions of origins. 26 The
scientist must indeed frame hypotheses concerning the physical and psychological
causation of phenomena, but that need not commit him to denying their autonomy
in what Popper likes to call the Third World, the world of problem solutions which
is also the world of culture and of art.
An illustration is close at hand: I have tried myself to explain some of Huizinga's
preoccupations in terms of his psychological development from the time he first
experienced the thrill of history in the form of a playful pageant. But I would never
claim that I could reduce Huizinga's oeuvre to mere epiphenomena of such psychological pressures. His books stand up, as do the Cathedrals, as beautiful structures, they have solved certain problems and posed many new ones which demand
25. J. S. Bruner, 'Nature and Uses of Immaturity', American Psychologist, XXVII (8. August
1972) 1-22, which also offers an excellent point of entry into the bibliography of the problem of
play. See also Maria W. Piers, ed., Play and Development (New York, 1972).
26. K. R. Popper, Objective Knowledge, an Evolutionary Approach (Oxford, 1972) (see Index
under Reduction).
solutions. And though I cannot accept the method adopted by Huizinga in Homo
ludens I am sure we have not yet absorbed enough of what the book can teach us.
In my own field, the history of art, we have become intolerably earnest. A false
prestige has come to be attached to the postulation of profound meanings or ulterior
motives. The idea of fun is perhaps even more unpopular among us than is the
notion of beauty. Huizinga's analysis of culture as a game, moreover, exposes the
fatal weakness of that cult of change and of dynamism that has taken hold of our
world in the wake of the triumphs of science.27 Marking examination papers in the
history of art I have often been struck by the frequency with which the term 'revolutionary' is employed simply as a term of praise for an artist or a stylistic change.
Whether a master invents perspective or discards it, whether he paints meadows
green or red, if only his art can be seen in terms of a break with conventions it is
revolutionary and therefore good. If Homo ludens had done nothing but remind us
of the fact that conventions belong to culture and to art much as rules belong to
games, the book would have done a service to this hectic age of ours. It was precisely this hectic character of our civilization Huizinga deplored. He wanted to persuade his contemporaries to exercise restraint, to practise austerity and to seek the
simple life. Nothing appeared to them more unrealistic than this plea for renunciation. Unrealistic it may still be, but by now the call has been taken up by the young
who are more critical of the pursuit of profit and power than he could ever have
hoped. What attracted him in the model of the game was precisely this element of selfimposed discipline. But he also knew that human life is not a game. There can be
no room in a game for pity. Imagine a goalkeeper letting the ball through because
he is sorry for the other side. In life pity must be allowed to break all the rules,
for without charity all culture is nothing but sounding brass and tinkling cymbals.
Huizinga did not quote the Epistle to the Corinthians, but it cannot have been far
from his mind when he wrote the last pages of Homo ludens. For as the book grew
under his hands it changed from a book about man and play to a meditation about
man and God.
I have mentioned a game that might be arranged, a competition in spotting quotations. Here is a description of a hunting ritual:
Only a gentleman has the right to carve wild game. Bare-headed, on bended knee,
with a special sword for the purpose (it would be sacrilege to use any other), with
ritual gesture, in a ritual order, he cuts the ritual number in due solemnity, while the
crowd stands around in silence.
Where does it come from? Not from Homo ludens, nor indeed from the Waning of
the Middle Ages. It is to be found in the Laus Stultitiae by Erasmus.
27. M. Peckham, Man's Rage for Chaos. Biology, Behaviour and the Arts (Philadelphia-New
York, 1965) and my review in The New York Review of Books (June 23rd, 1966).
Naturally Erasmus here ridicules the folly of man's propensity to indulge in this
kind of game, he goes through the various aspects of life to make fun of the irrational things done by lawyers, teachers, theologians and philosophers while
Homo ludens describes similar specimens of human behaviour as evidence of the
link between culture and the play instinct. But when in his original lecture Huizinga
spoke of the danger of looking at civilization sub specie ludi he warned his audience
that 'play is a category that devours everything, just as folly, once it had taken hold
of the mind of Erasmus, had to become the Queen of the whole world'. (V, 23)
To quote Huizinga's words from his essay about the Praise of Folly:
He [Erasmus] had measured all the values of the world against the length of his fool's
bauble, and everything of that world was found to be folly by that measuring rod.
Wisdom was folly, folly was life. But when in the end he finally also used this measuring rod to gauge the things of heaven everything once more turned round. The
figures on the scale of the rod now read in the other direction. Folly became wisdom.
Here he had stepped one further step beyond himself. The word had passed from the
humanist wit with his wealth of erudition and his noble social sense to the inner man,
and he pointed beyond the consequences of an anti-intellectualism that remained
within this world to a sphere in which the contrast between intellectualism and its
opposite is dissolved. (VI, 234)
It is impossible to miss the resemblance between this reading of the Praise of Folly
and the concluding page of Homo ludens which I quoted at the outset of this enquiry. (p. 277) I believe that the parallel extends much further. To appreciate Erasmus' idea of Folly we do not turn to the debates of modern psychiatrists about the
nature of mental illness. In the last analysis the discussion by modern psychologists
and anthropologists about the nature and the definition of play 28 are no more
relevant to Huizinga's real concern.
I know that Huizinga was sometimes nettled when it was assumed that he identified with Erasmus. (I, 41) Somehow the great humanist aroused in him all the
ambivalent feelings that sprang from a life-long fight against the temptations of
cultured aestheticism. We are reminded of the distinction Huizinga drew between
St. Jerome's and St. Augustine's style of religiosity. He returned to this theme in
his centenary address on Erasmus delivered in the Minster at Basle.
These are neither the accents of Luther nor those of Calvin and St. Theresa. The
religious sentiments of Erasmus appear to us frequently removed into the middle
sphere of poetic erudition instead of calling to heaven from the depths. (VI, 207)
Reading Homo ludens with sympathy and understanding even those of us who cannot share Huizinga's philosophy can hear that voice de profundis.
28. I. Heidemann, Der Begriff des Spieles (Berlin, 1968) and Volker Harms, Der Terminus 'Spiel'
in der Ethnologie. Arbeiten aus dem Institut für Völkerkunde der Universität zu Göttingen, Band 4
(Hamburger Philosophische Dissertation, 1969).
9. Burckhardt und Huizinga - Zwei Historiker in der Krise
ihrer Zeit
Wenn an einem Symposium über Huizinga auch einem Vertreter der Universitat
Basel die Ehre zuteil wird, im Kreise der Kenner das Wort ergreifen zu dürfen,
erwarten die Zuhörer mit gutem Recht einen Beitrag zu dem, was man als die
'baslerische Dimension' im Werk des niederländischen Geschichtsschreibers bezeichnen könnte. Diese 'baslerische Dimension' wird durch einige wohlbekannte
Tatsachen markiert: An erster Stelle ist die unbestreitbare und unbestrittene
Bedeutung Jacob Burckhardts für das Denken und Wirken Huizingas zu nennen,
daneben darf man sich daran erinnern, daß der Biograph des Erasmus von Rotterdam mit der Geschichte der Stadt Basel im Zeitalter des Humanismus aufs genaueste vertraut war, und schließlich weiß jedermann, daß der Basler Historiker
Werner Kaegi, der heute am Schlußteil seiner monumentalen Burckhardt-Biographie arbeitet, einige unter den wichtigsten Werken Huizingas durch seine Übersetzungen im deutschen Sprachgebiet bekannt gemacht hat.
Mit der Erwähnung dieser Tatsachen ist der allgemeine Rahmen abgesteckt, in
den ich meine folgenden Erörterungen stellen möchte. Dabei kann und soll hier
nur ein ganz bestimmter Abschnitt der 'baslerischen Dimension' Huizingas zur
Sprache kommen. Die thematische Begrenzung erscheint sinnvoll, weil manche
Einzelheiten schon sehr oft diskutiert worden sind, während andere sich dem prüfenden Blick des Forschers aus begreiflichen Gründen vorerst noch entziehen.
Von den großen Verdiensten Werner Kaegis als Übersetzer Huizingas soll hier
nicht die Rede sein; daß er auch heute noch zu den berufensten Kennern und Deutern der Ideen und Intentionen des niederländischen Historikers gehört, unterliegt überhaupt keinem Zweifel. Jeder, der heute über Huizinga und vor allem auch
über die Beziehungen Huizingas zu der Welt Jacob Burckhardts etwas sagen will,
muß sich den Einsichten Kaegis dankbar verpflichtet fühlen.
Das Thema 'Huizinga und Basel' ist in erster Linie biographischer Art und kann
ohne das Studium des persönlichen Nachlasses und der noch vorhandenen Korrespondenzen nicht dargestellt werden. Immerhin sei in diesem Zusammenhang
wenigstens kurz erwähnt, daß Huizinga die Stadt des Erasmus und Jacob Burckhardts zweimal in sozusagen offizieller Mission besucht hat, nämlich als akademi297
scher Gastredner. Zum ersten Mal geschah dies am 13. Dezember 1926. Auf Einladung von Werner Kaegi, der damals an der Übersetzung der Erasmus-Biographie arbeitete und die Vortragskommission der Studentenschaft beriet, sprach
Huizinga an diesem Tage vor seinen Basler Hörern über das Thema 'Renaissance
und Realismus'. Der Vortrag beruhte auf einem bereits einige Jahre zuvor entstandenen Entwurf und wurde u.a. auch in Bern, Zürich und Freiburg im Breisgau gehalten. Um 1929 erschien er in den Cultuurhistorische Verkenningen und
hat von da aus bekanntlich einen bedeutsamen Einfluß auf die Diskussion um den
Burckhardtschen Renaissancebegriff ausgeübt. (IV, 276-297) Seinen zweiten Basler
Vortrag hielt Huizinga am 24. Oktober 1936 vor einem großen und internationalen Publikum im Munster; es war die Gedenkrede auf Erasmus von Rotterdam.
(VI, 204-219)
Das Thema 'Burckhardt und Huizinga' endlich kann unter drei Hauptgesichtspunkten erörtert werden, je nachdem, ob man die Konzeption der Renaissance, den
allgemeinen Kulturbegriff oder das Problem der Kulturkrise in den Mittelpunkt
stellt. Schon sehr viel Richtiges und Erhellendes ist zu allen drei Aspekten gesagt
worden, ganz besonders zu den ersten beiden. Werner Kaegi hat im letzten Stück
seiner Historischen Meditationen den gesamten Fragenkomplex charakterisierend
umrissen und deutlich gemacht, daß alles im Grunde sehr eng zusammenhängt.1
Zum Verhältnis der Renaissancekonzeptionen und der Kulturbegriffe haben sich
neben ihm und zahlreichen anderen Autoren namentlich Wallace K. Ferguson,
H. Schulte Nordholt und in neuester Zeit auch E. M. Janssen ausgesprochen.2
Den tiefgreifenden und lehrreichen Aussagen dieser Forscher möchte ich hier nichts
hinzufügen. Meine Hauptfrage richtet sich nach dem dritten Aspekt des Verhältnisses Burckhardt - Huizinga, d.h. nach den Vorstellungen von der Kulturkrise.
Beide Historiker haben bekanntlich nicht nur die Vergangenheit beschrieben, sondern sie haben sich aus ihren Einsichten in den Lauf der Geschichte heraus auch
zur Situation ihrer Gegenwart geäußert und über die Möglichkeiten der Zukunftsentwicklung nachgedacht. Burckhardt tat dies vor allem in den Weltgeschichtlichen
Betrachtungen, Huizinga am ausführlichsten in dem Buche Im Schatten von morgen.3
Diese beiden Werke sollen denn auch im Mittelpunkt unserer Erörterungen stehen.
Dokumentarisches Material bietet sich uns aber auch anderswo an, so etwa in den
1. 'Das historische Werk Johan Huizingas', Historische Meditationen, zweite Folge (Zürich,
1946) 256 ff.
2. Wallace, K. Ferguson, The Renaissance in Historical Thought: Five Centuries of Interpretation
(Boston, 1948) 373 ff; H. Schulte Nordholt, Het beeld der Renaissance (Amsterdam, 1948);
E. M. Janssen, Jacob Burckhardt und die Renaissance (Assen, 1970), vgl. Register.
3. Wir zitieren die Weltgeschichtlichen Betrachtungen (WB) in der Ausgabe von Werner Kaegi
(Bern, 1941). Die Schrift Im Schatten von morgen ist in endgültiger niederländischer Fassung, die
unserer Betrachtung zugrunde liegt, in VW, VII, 313-328 abgedruckt.
Briefen Burckhardts, in einigen kleineren Schriften Huizingas und natürlich in
seinem letzten Werk, Geschändete Welt.
Ein Vergleich der Weltgeschichtlichen Betrachtungen mit Im Schatten von morgen
muß zunächst von den äußeren Merkmalen und Gegebenheiten ausgehen. Beide
Bücher wurden geschrieben, als ihre Autoren sich bereits durch andere Werke
internationales Ansehen erworben hatten, und zwar durch solche, die man bis heute
als ihre Hauptwerke betrachtet. Beide Bücher entstanden in Zwischenkriegszeiten.
Sie waren gekennzeichnet durch die Erfahrung europäischer bzw. weltumspannender Machtkonflikte, und sie wurden beide durch die Besorgnis um eine Zukunft
geprägt, die weitere Konflikte globalen Ausmaßes verhieß und dann tatsächlich
auch brachte. Beide Werke sind ferner durch einen ausgesprochenen Pessimismus
charakterisiert, der ebenfalls in beiden Fällen in scharfem Kontrast steht zu kontemporären Strömungen betont optimistischer Art. In ihrer skeptischen und pessimistischen Grundhaltung gegenüber ihrer Gegenwart weisen sowohl Burckhardt
als auch Huizinga mehrfach auf die gleichen oder doch auf einander entsprechende
Übelstände hin. Schließlich wird auch in beiden Büchern der Versuch unternommen, die kulturelle Krise der Gegenwart in historischer Perspektive zu verstehen
und sie mit Krisenerscheinungen aus der Vergangenheit in Beziehung zu setzen.
Neben diesen äußeren Gemeinsamkeiten fallen jedem Leser aber auch bedeutende
äußere Unterschiede auf. Burckhardts Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen enthalten
sehr viel mehr historisches Material als Im Schatten von morgen. Das Buch des
Basler Historikers ist wesentlich umfangreicher, und seine Ausführungen über die
Krise der Gegenwart sind im ganzen gesehen allgemeiner gehalten als diejenigen
des niederländischen Zeitkritikers.
Auf die recht komplizierte Entstehungsgeschichte der Weltgeschichtlichen Betrachtungen können wir hier nicht näher eingehen. Aber wir müssen doch bedenken,
daß dieses Werk Burckhardts ursprünglich nicht zur Veröffentlichung vorgesehen
war. Früheste Entwürfe und rudimentäre Textgrundlagen stammen aus der Zeit
um 1850. Eine erweiterte Fassung entstand im Sommer 1868 und wurde im Herbst
und Winter desselben Jahres noch zweimal überarbeitet. Das Ganze war nicht als
Buch konzipiert, sondern als Universitätsvorlesung. Diese Vorlesung wurde erstmals im Winter 1868-69 gehalten und dann mit verschiedenen Zusätzen noch zweimal wiederholt, nämlich in den Wintersemestern 1870-71 und 1872-73. Die beiden
Schlußkapitel über 'Die historische Größe' und 'Über Glück und Unglück in der
Weltgeschichte' trug Burckhardt im Winter 1870-71 außerhalb der regularen Vorlesung vor. Sie bildeten eine Reihe öffentlicher Vorträge und erreichten so von An299
fang an einen über die Studenten der Geschichte hinausgehenden Kreis historisch
interessierter Zuhörer. Letzte Zusätze stammen aus dem Jahre 1873. Sie finden sich
im Abschnitt über das, was Burckhardt als die 'heutige Krise' - also die Krise seiner eigenen Zeit - bezeichnete. Der Gesamttitel Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen
stammt nicht von Burckhardt selbst, sondern von seinem Neffen Jakob Oeri, der
das Werk um 1905 - acht Jahre nach dem Tode des Verfassers - erstmals in Buchform veröffentlichte. Burckhardt selbst hatte seiner Vorlesung den Titel 'Über
Studium der Geschichte' gegeben. Die beiden Titel entsprechen den beiden Hauptphasen der Entstehungsgeschichte des Werkes. Sie repräsentieren zwei Intentionen
Burckhardts, die auch in der endgültigen Fassung noch nebeneinander spürbar
bleiben. Die eine zielt auf Anregung und Beratung studentischer Anfänger, die
andere auf Darlegung fundamentaler historischer Erkenntnisse vor einem erfahrenen und gebildeten Publikum, das Zusammenschau, Vertiefung und Deutung
Bei Huizingas Werk Im Schatten von morgen stehen wir vor einer viel einfacheren
Situation. Es handelt sich hier bekanntlich um die Ausarbeitung und Erweiterung
eines einzigen Vortrags, der im März 1935 in Brüssel gehalten wurde. Das Buch
wendet sich an ein weites und gebildetes Publikum. Es vermittelt keine Einführung
in das Studium der Geschichte. Sein Thema ist die Kulturkrise der Gegenwart,
sein Ziel nach den Worten des Untertitels eine Diagnose, d.h. eine zusammenfassende Beurteilung einer Situation, die als krankhaft bezeichnet wird. Es ist gewiß kein Zufall, daß man beim Lesen immer wieder auf Begriffe und Wendungen
aus der Sprache des Arztes stößt. Die Eindeutigkeit des Themas bringt es mit sich,
daß das Buch trotz manchen recht improvisiert wirkenden Stellen doch als eine
geschloßenere und einheitlicher durchgeformte Aussage erscheint als die Abhandlung Burckhardts.
Nach der Betrachtung dieser äußeren Merkmale wollen wir uns aber nun den Inhalten und den geistigen Anliegen der beiden Werke zuwenden. Dabei muß bei
Jacob Burckhardt wiederum etwas weiter ausgeholt werden. Zwischen der Entstehung der ersten Entwürfe zu den Weltgeschichtlichen Betrachtungen und der Ausarbeitung der Vorlesung liegt im Lebensgang des Basler Historikers eine Epoche
bedeutender historiographischer Produktivität. Um 1853 war die Darstellung der
Zeit Constantins des Großen erschienen. Zwei Jahre später veröffentlichte Burckhardt den Cicerone, und um 1858 übernahm er die ordentliche professur für
Geschichte und Kunstgeschichte an der Universität seiner Vaterstadt. In derselben
4. Kaegi, 'Einleitung' zur Ausgabe der WB, 8.
Zeit schenkte er dem Buche über die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien die ausgereifte
Form, in welcher es um 1860 erstmals im Druck erschien. Der in Franz Kuglers
Geschichte der Baukunst um 1867 veröffentlichte Torso über die Baukunst der Renaissance in Italien schloß diese reiche Schaffensperiode ab und machte Burckhardt
frei für neue Aufgaben. Als wichtigste und dringendste betrachtete er nun die
gründlichere Ausarbeitung seiner weltgeschichtlichen Vorlesungen. Diese Wandlung
der wissenschaftlichen Intentionen sollte das weitere historiographische Wirken
Burckhardts von Grund auf bestimmen. Wenn man sie verstehen will, muß man
den Einfluß der allgemeinen weltpolitischen Entwicklungen der Zeit berücksichtigen.
Dieser Einfluß nämlich hat Burckhardt aus der historischen Spezialisierung herausgeholt und ihn dazu veranlaßt, als Historiker zur Situation der Gegenwart
Stellung zu nehmen.
In der Zeit von 1850 bis 1868 war Europa bekanntlich unter die Dominanz der
national-staatlichen Imperialismen geraten. Das Tempo der internationalen politischen Vorgänge hatte sich in einer für viele Zeitgenossen beangstigenden Weise
verschärft. Daß nach der Reichsgründung und dem Frieden von 1871 dann eine
Ruhepause von ca. 40 Jahren eintreten sollte, war allerdings nicht vorauszusehen.
In den Jahren 1868-1873 war Burckhardt vom Bewußtsein sich überstürzender
Machtkämpfe in Europa erfüllt, er verfolgte aber auch mit Skepsis den Eintritt
der Vereinigten Staaten von Amerika in die Weltpolitik und die Zuspitzung der
Konflikte zwischen den europäischen Kolonialmächten in Afrika und Asien.5
Man kann wohl sagen, daß die Weltgeschichtlichen Betrachtungen das am ausgesprochensten 'theoretische' Werk Burckhardts seien; aber seine geschichtstheoretische Intention darf gewiß nicht überschätzt werden, und zwar auch dann nicht,
wenn man die zahlreichen Berührungspunkte mit zeitgenössischen und früheren
geschichtsphilosophischen Ideen und die durch den ganzen Text hindurch immer
wieder zu verfolgende Auseinandersetzung mit Ernst von Lasaulx in Betracht zieht.
Das Werk ist durchaus zu charakterisieren als Ergebnis von Reflexionen eines Historikers, der erkannte, daß der Blick auf die historischen Realitäten bei manchen
seiner Zeit- und Fachgenossen durch allzuviele philosophische Spekulationen eher
getrübt als geschärft wurde. 6
Dabei schreckte Burckhardt nun allerdings keineswegs vor dem Wagnis der Generalisierung und der Benennung struktureller Prinzipien zurück (man denke nur
an seine Lehre von den drei Potenzen), und er entzog sich auch nicht der Pflicht,
über das zu sprechen, was er als 'die große Gesamtaufgabe der Geschichte im allgemeinen' ansah. (WB, 47)
5. Ibidem, 15. Vgl. auch den soeben erschienenen V. Band von Kaegis Burckhardt-Biographie
(Basel, 1973). Er ist dem Thema 'Das neue Europa und das Erlebnis der Gegenwart' gewidmet.
6; Karl J. Weintraub, Visions of Culture: Voltaire, Guizot, Burckhardt, Lamprecht, Huizinga,
Ortega y Gasset (Chicago, 1966) 122-123.
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